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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Abby Barrows

Fighting Plastic Pollution with Citizen Science

Gabriella Carne was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

A new movement has been arising called citizen science that charges all individuals to participate in scientific data collection and discovery. This idea gets everyone involved and talking about how they can increase their positive impact and lessen their negative impact on the planet. This translates into large data sets on environmental concerns that can be used to influence everyday individual action and public policy. One woman spearheading this movement is Abby Barrows, principle investigator at Adventure Scientists, who is investigating how to get people involved with understanding and mitigating microplastic pollution and how to use that involvement to affect public change in United States environmental policy.

Abby Barrows, having grown up on a small farm in the island town of Stonington, Maine on Deer Isle, always had a love for the outdoors and considered the ocean a big part of her life [1]. Her love for the outdoors was even more solidified when she participated in an OutwardBound [2] educational trip at the age of sixteen which found her learning first hand about the environmental field while living at sea. This love for the ocean lead Abby to pursue a degree in zoology focusing on marine biology from the University of Tasmania in Australia. Life in Australia granted her opportunities for surfing, diving, and strengthening her connection with the ocean even more. Her education allowed her to travel and conduct research in various regions of the world. Through all of these experiences her dedication to the environment grew. She knew that she wanted to work with and protect the landscape she loved so much. This passion for the ocean led her to pursue a career in marine science. All of her experiences led her back to Stonington where her passion began, and where she now manages the data collected on microplastic pollution in waterways around the globe. This data she analyzes is collected from citizen scientists, who want to learn about and protect the places they love to explore.

“The ocean has always been a big part of my life” -Barrows [4]


Stonington, Maine [3]

Abby’s first encounter with citizen engagement with science was during college when she participated in a canopy research project [4]. This project was empowering to Abby, feeling as if she was a part of something larger than herself, something important. Individuals volunteering their time for scientific research and to helping the environment inspired her. This rang true again upon returning to Maine and finding work with a non-profit where Abby again got to experience the power of citizen engagement. In addition to seeing how these individuals were having an impact in their immediate community, she realized that utilizing citizens for scientific research was simply more efficient. It bulks up the data collected during the season and gets people hyped about the research being done. It’s an innovative way to do research that can bring about real change.

This type of involvement helps Abby with her other interest which is using her research to enact political change. She has recently focused her efforts on microbead pollution. Microbeads [5] are the tiny plastic particles that are commonly found in exfoliant scrubs and toothpaste. These items that individuals use everyday are constantly being washed down drains and contaminating rivers and oceans. The plastic particles absorb certain toxins from the water, are then consumed by marine wildlife which is then consumed by humans. This is a multilayer problem that involves water quality, wildlife protection, human health and sustainability. Abby has recently been involved in driving a microbead ban [6] in the state of Maine with the data she works with. This push that Abby was a part of successfully enacted a bill that would halt products containing microbeads from being manufactured in Maine by December of 2017. This was a big accomplishment in the continued fight to mitigate the contaminants that enter our waterways.


Observable microbeads in toothpaste [7]

“Driving policy with data” -Barrows [4]

Abby finds that there is power in letting the data speak for itself. A major problem that the push for legislation to mitigate microplastic pollution faces is a lack of data on the subject. This is the case for many of environmental concerns. Protecting the environment is a monumental task, consequently, we need a monumental number of people involved. There simply aren’t enough people out there noting what is going on and reporting it to the right centers and organizations. This is where the idea of citizen science comes in. It gets people involved, in this case for data collection on microplastics, and funnels that information to the people that can use it to make a difference.

Currently, Abby’s main project with Adventure Scientists is monitoring microplastic pollution [8] for the sake of pushing for microplastics reduction legislation in the United States. Anyone who wants to help can go onto the Adventure Scientists website and sign up [9] to receive information and materials needed to conduct water sampling of microplastics. Once the data has been collected they send it back to the lab where Abby and other microplastics analysts then compile, analyze, and map the data. This data is then used to build arguments for more discussion on microplastic pollution within policy formulation. With data on how widespread microplastic pollution is, Abby and her colleagues can create real change in environmental policy that, as their research shows, affects a significant number of individuals. 

What Abby does is incredibly important in the constant battle to protect the natural resources that we, as human beings who are a part of a connected biological community, find so valuable. The work she does as a promoter of citizen science involves everyday citizens and explorers in the progression of environmental science. This rallies people of all backgrounds to advocate for the places that they explore and enjoy. This is essential for conservation efforts that wholistically involve all people. If science seeks to answer some of the most pressing environmental concerns of our time, everyone needs to participate and aid in environmental initiatives. Abby Barrows is at the front lines of this push for citizen involvement in scientific initiatives. Her unique story goes to show that one person's passion really can make a difference.


[1] GEMS, Ocean. "Abby Barrows." Ocean GEMS. Ocean GEMS, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

[2] "Outdoor Education Programs." Outdoor Education Programs. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

[3] Google Search.

[4] Barrows, Abby. Personal Communication. Nov. 15, 2016.

[5] Plastic Microbeads: They're Bad. But Together We Can Stop Them." The Story of Stuff Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. <>.

[6] "Bill to Ban Microbeads in Maine Backed by Both Sides." The Portland Press Herald. N.p., 05 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. <>.

[7] Google Search

[8] "Adventure Scientists Worldwide Microplastics Project." Adventure Scientists. Adventure Scientists, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

[9] Microplastics Project Sign-Up." Adventure Scientists. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. <>.


Photo of Abby Barrows by Ann Luskey. On Oceanic Society's Bali to Komodo plastics expedition [4]